CITIZEN TACO’S 2012 ESSENTIAL SXSW GUIDE
If you’ve never been to South by Southwest (or never lived in New York, London, Berlin or Tokyo), then your body may not have experienced the modern phenomenon known as “FOMO,” though it’s becoming more and more commonly diagnosed amongst the Facebook generation. Personally I’ve never felt a greater “Fear Of Missing Out” than during my two years attending SXSW. With such a massive roster of events going on at any one time–and everyone on their iPhones tweeting and 4squaring their every move–you can’t help but feel that you’re in the exact wrong place at all times, always in pursuit of the moveable feast. Here’s a secret: you’ll never find it! When you’ve reached the point of exhaustion (and believe me, you will) turn off that phone and ease the pain with good eats. Austin has plenty of tasty food within reach–you just have to know where to find it. Skip the hot dog and pizza shops downtown and don’t buy into the food trailer hype. Not all taco trucks were created equal. I was lucky enough to live in Austin for 18 glorious months, more than enough time to master its small but exciting restaurant scene. In the hopes that no SXSW attendee will suffer a bad meal, I offer you the following food & drink map for handy geolocation and a selected guide to a few essential eateries:
Food & Drink Map
You simply cannot leave Austin without eating tacos. Good tacos. Especially breakfast tacos. So don’t f*ck up and go somewhere bad. Damn near every establishment in town thinks they know how to make a breakfast taco. I beg of you: don’t let your first taste be anywhere but the best. My favorites are at the Taco Mex window on Manor Rd, Polvo’s on South Congress and Cocina de Consuelo on Burnet, but you can also find stellar versions at any of these locations. At lunch and dinner I dig the mushroom, carnitas, and grilled fish concoctions at Izzoz Tacos and pretty much anything at Tacodeli. And if you’ve never had a lamb birria taco, I swear by the hole-in-the-wall El Borrego De Oro on South Congress.
It’s my personal belief that the food cart/trailer phenomenon is officially past its moment, but a few of them are still worth checking out. The best hands-down is Gourdough’s, and I guarantee the decadent made-to-order donut trailer will be mobbed all week. East Side King now has three carts at bars on the east, each with a different menu (my favorite is outside The Grackle). Other standouts include Oaxacan food at El Naranjo, J. Mueller’s BBQ Truck, Japanese rice balls at the Love Balls Bus, Sushi A Go Go, and Three Little Pigs sandwiches. But the unofficial death of food trucks may have passed with the closing of Odd Duck Farm to Trailer–to try Bryce Gilmore’s outstanding food you’ll have to hit his red-hot brick-and-mortar Barleyswine.
Every meat-eater needs to experience Texas BBQ. The thing to note, however, is that the quality tends to improve as you get farther from the city (the exception being the so-called “best BBQ in Texas” at Franklin BBQ on East 11th St, but with wait times of over an hour during normal weeks, I can’t morally sanction a visit during SXSW week). If you can spare a few hours, its worth a drive to Louie Mueller’s in Taylor, Smitty’s in Lockhart, or the Salt Lick in Driftwood. If you can’t get out of central Austin, your best bet is the J. Mueller’s truck on South 1st. Decent versions can also be found at Live Oak BBQ, Ironworks, Sam’s BBQ, and the more upscale Lambert’s.
Vegans, vegetarians, lactards and gluten-intolerants shouldn’t feel left out. You’ll find great vegan options all over the city, but a few establishments do a better job than others. The outstanding Counter Culture food cart is currently transitioning to a brick-and-mortar on East 1st. If its not open by SXSW time, check out the Daily Juice, Beets Living Foods Cafe, and Casa de Luz for delicious animal-free eats. If you like your vegan food a little rough around the edges, check out the Vegan Yacht truck, pan-Asian Veggie Heaven, and the Mexican-inspired buffet at Mr. Natural.
24 Hr Dining
Austin doesn’t scrimp on good all-hours dining. Whether you’re still on West Coast time or buzzed from that electro showcase at Beauty Bar, you’ll have a number of options for late night grub. Magnolia Cafe‘s mind-blowing migas and fluffy pancakes make it the best bet by far, but you might encounter a wait at both locations even at 4am. The same goes for the gourmet-ish fare at 24 Diner and the original location of Kerbey Lane Cafe. To bypass the out-of-towners, head to the local secret La Mexicana Bakery on South First for some restorative breakfast tacos.
Don’t get stuck with the Lost and the Clueless on Sixth St and Red River. Austin’s divey-as-hell watering holes are some of the best in the nation and only a short walk or bike ride from downtown. The Eastside has the greatest concentration of cool bars, mostly on East 6th–standouts include the Longbranch Inn, The Liberty, the Scoot Inn and Shangri-La. South Austin has the Horseshoe Lounge, two-stepping at the Broken Spoke, and draft beer + Indian food at the Whip-In. North Austinities love Lala’s Little Nugget and Ginny’s Little Longhorn (will there be Chickenshit Bingo this Sunday?). And if you head West, the Mean Eyed Cat, Deep Eddy Cabaret and Donn’s Depot are all great places to get your slurp on. Forget those fussy mixology bars–this is where the real drinking happens.
Austin cares little to compete with other cities on anything, and when it comes to coffee they really can’t hold a candle to Portland, New York, San Francisco. The baristas at Houndstooth are perhaps the most ambitious (without the ‘tude you find in those other cities) and Once Over, Caffe Medici, Progress, Thunderbird, and the Patika and La Boite trailers all serve strong shots topped with adequate latte art. And when your energy starts to flag and you’re stuck downtown, the gourmet hot dog joint Frank secretly harbors a La Marzocco and a hefty supply of Intelligentsia.
Need to stock up? Sure you can roll into HEB or Fiesta Mart for cheap supplies, but the best deli counters and produce stands are at three establishments: the Whole Foods flagship store is a must-visit even if you don’t need groceries (check out the BBQ station and the eat-in raw/vegan counter); Wheatsville Co-op is the best place to support a truly local business; and Central Market draws a devoted following of health-minded shoppers who’d rather not spend half a paycheck on organic salad mix.
BEST RESTAURANT: Make a reservation right now at Tyson Cole’s brilliant, award-winning, unforgetable Uchi or its younger sibling Uchiko. It may be landlocked, but somehow Cole’s restos do better sushi and Japanese cuisine than 99.9% of oceanside restaurants. Other good places to splurge (in order)? Barleyswine, Foreign & Domestic, Congress, East Side Showroom and brand-spankin-new Lenoir.
BEST AIRPORT FOOD: It’s not technically at the airport, but the original location of El Meson Taqueria on Burleson Rd. is mere minutes away and it does some of the best traditional Mexican cuisine in Austin (and far better than its second location on South Lamar). It’s only open 6am to 2pm, so if your flight arrives or departs in the early hours, make El Meson your first or last Austin destination and its sure to put a positive stamp on your adventure. (Closed Sunday)
BEST OUTDOOR HANGOUT: I’m not the first person to tell you about Barton Springs Pool. It’s spring-feld, it’s cold, it costs a few bucks, and parking can be a nightmare. But it tops the list of the nation’s great public bathing spots and has the best people-watching in town.
BEST INDOOR HANGOUT: Even if you’re skipping SXSW’s film conference, don’t miss the chance to see a movie at the Alamo Drafthouse. Comfy seats, sweet AC, impeccable programming, and the chance to drink beer and eat a meal while you watch? Unbeatable. (Note: its often easy to attend film festival screenings in the second week once the film conference has ended.)
BEST DANCING: When you get sick of all the hipsters arm-flailing to blah indie music, channel your inner Texan at the Broken Spoke on South 1st or Donn’s Depot on West 5th. These temples of two-stepping are unlike any bar you’ve ever been to. Slick dance floors, cheap beers, and an average age over 50 make them a welcome respite from all the Twitter-induced 20-something angst.
BEST MISCELLANY: Uncommon Objects on South Congress. Just go.